Exploring Churchill, Manitoba
The tundra was squishy, small plants scattered here and there, moss and fungi clinging to rocks, skinny short trees here and there with branches on one side due to strong northern winds. It was morning in Churchill and I was climbing into a passenger van with my guide, Gerald, and three other guests from the Lazy Bear Lodge.
As Gerald pulled out of the driveway and began our culture and heritage tour I couldn’t help looking out the window with a silly grin on my face. I was in Churchill, Manitoba. Finally! Churchill has been on my Canadian bucket list for the last few years, and now I could check it off. Wow.
Our tour began at the ruins of the original fort built by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 18th century. With a 12 gage shot gun resting barrel up on his shoulder, Gerald guided us over the rocks and to the outer edges where a small patch of wall still stands. It’s August and most of the Polar Bear are far from town, but there are still a few poking around, and laying among the crevices of the rocks is one of their favourite things to do. This is why Gerald is carrying a shot gun.
Our first Polar Bear sighting happened while standing by the old wall. The bear was across the Churchill River resting on some rocks, and while everyone took turns watching it through the binoculars, my eyes rested on the white objects cresting the river. Beluga Whales. At least fifty of them. This is why I was in Churchill. Belugas.
With the cold air whipping through my hair, and Gerald giving a history lesson, I grabbed my camera and looked around with rose-coloured glasses. Everything was beautiful in one way or another. I swear, I was almost giddy with joy; and taking way too many photos in the process.
Leaving the old fort behind we drove to the wreckage of a cargo plane from the 1970s. Still resting in the very place where it crashed, Gerald grabbed his 12 gage and encouraged us to poke around. Looking in holes. Walking on a wing. Climbing up the rocks and looking at what was left of the cockpit. Inspecting an engine resting and rusting on the rocks. While I was busy taking photos I heard Gerald cock his gun but didn’t think anything of it. It wasn’t until after I looked at the engine and climbed up a rock that I realized what was going on, in the near distance a Polar Bear had poked his head up from in between the rocks.
I was transfixed. I know that Polar Bears are vicious and far more dangerous than any other bear, yet thanks to Coca Cola I couldn’t help cooing under my breath. OMG! He was so white and FLUFFY!! I was secretly wishing I could cuddle with him – but thankfully I am way smarter than that.
While Gerald and a conservation officer held their guns cocked and ready to fire, we waited to see what the bear would do. He clearly saw us, and not alone (we spotted another one sleeping behind some trees nearby). Thankfully was feeling a little ‘meh’ about our presence and let us snap a few photos before laying back down on the rocks.
Wow. I’m in Churchill in the off season to see Beluga whales and I’ve already seen three Polar Bears.
Exhilarated by the morning’s Polar Bear sightings and the charm of Churchill I was practically jumping out of my skin to go whale watching on the Churchill River.
My whale watching group turned out to be the same group as my morning culture and heritage tour, making things pleasantly easy. A good thing since Gerald forced me to wear a life jacket when we first climbed into the boat. What’s the big deal about wearing a life jacket? Well, I have ginormous boobs. I’m not kidding. I have to squish my boobs to see my feet. Yes, really. Now imagine a bright orange life vest being strapped over my boobs. I had to hold the vest down to keep myself from choking. Yes, really.
“Uh, Gerald, do I seriously have to wear this? I kind of have my own built in floatation devices”, I said with hope in my eyes. Gerald merely laughed and I quickly unbuckled my jacket and breathed a sigh of relief.
Our whale watching tour began with a stop at Prince of Wales Fort and another history lesson about the English, and Churchill, and some other stuff that I don’t remember because I was busy taking photos and trying to figure out the different ‘job’ symbols carved into the stones that were laid in the fort’s walls.
My afternoon of whale watching was so excited I was swooning and swearing with glee. I have been whale watching in Newfoundland, but nothing and I do mean nothing, beats Beluga Whales.
You know how you would never try to pet a wild Orca, but you’ll pet one at Marineland? Belugas are totally different. They are just as friendly and curious in the wild as they are in zoos.
We watched Belugas crest along the Churchill River looking for a pod that we could get close to when we heard gun shots. Looking towards shore we spotted a polar bear (probably the same one we had seen laying on the rocks in the morning) on the rocks being scared off by a couple of conservation officers. Gerald stopped the boat and we watched as the bear slipped into the water and began swimming against the current towards the other side of the river. We watched from afar until the bear was half way across, then Gerald slowly steers our boat towards the polar bear, getting us close enough that I could get a decent photo with my zoom lens, but far away enough that we were still safe.
We sat there for a couple minutes watching the polar bear swim, then Gerald started the motor and we returned to our whale watching.
Grabbing my GoPro, Gerald tied a length of rope to the waterproof housing. With a floaty piece attached to the back, I turned the camera on and threw it into the river, then tied the loose end to the boat.
OMG. It. Was. Amazing. I swore numerous times as the belugas swam right up to the boat, dipping under us and coming out the other side. White or gray figures just below the mossy green coloured surface. Mothers and babies (babies are gray). We were surrounded, and there were even more of them off in the distance. I snapped photos as much as I could, but at the same time, I just wanted to put my camera down and watch.
The fact that I’m in Churchill at the end of Beluga Whale season tells me that my mind-blowing afternoon is NOTHING compared to when the Churchill River is filled with thousands of whales. Yes, thousands!
I can close my eyes and take myself back to that day, see the smiles on the whales (belugas have facial expressions), watch them follow the boat. OMG it was so amazing.
When Gerald dropped us off for the night I went to my room, grabbed my laptop and set-up a little workspace in the restaurant in the Lazy Bear Lodge. I had photos to process and memories to jot down.
A few hours later Gerald stopped by and invited me to see his dogs. Gerald runs Blue Sky Mush and does dog sledding in the winter (and sometimes dog carting in summer). Eager for a chance to maybe see some Northern Lights, I said yes. We were joined by a mother and her two kids. Apparently, their Dad had gone on a hunting trip with a few others and they were stuck overnight due to the tide. Gerald thought a trip to see his dogs would be a good distraction.
On our way to Gerald’s dogs, we decided to swing by the plane wreck to see if the bears were still around. I had seen four or five, but the family hadn’t seen any. We took a shot, and it totally paid off. The polar bears were still there, and Gerald managed to get us close enough that I was able to take a couple of decent photos.
Polar bears are so mesmerizing. I could have stood there for hours watching them, and drinking Diet Coke. Iconic. Romantic. Silly.
Having our fill of the polar bears (as if one could have their fill) Gerald packed us back into his truck and we continued to drive towards his dog yard. We were maybe seven minutes down the road when Gerald turned off on a small dirt track that wound in around some trees. Was this the way to his dog yard? No. Gerald had spotted yet another polar bear.
This time we were on the opposite side of a small lake and the bear was slowly walking along the shore. No binoculars required.
At this point, I probably should have gone directly to a shop and bought a lottery ticket. Seriously.
Feeling drunk with luck I climbed back into Gerald’s truck and looked out the window like a lovestruck fool until we arrived at the dog yard. I couldn’t believe my luck and while the kids played with the dogs all I could think about was going back to the lodge and looking through my photos, reliving my day. Which is exactly what I did when I got back to the lodge – until Gerald called my room at 11 pm saying there was a little northern light action and invited me up to his house for beers, and northern lights.
A REALLY bad attempt at night photography
This is where a really good photographer shows you their amazing shots. Unfortunately, my camera was fairly new, and I do very little night photography. That means I stood outside with Gerald until 2 am trying to take a clear photo; cursing and laughing every time it didn’t work.
It was the perfect end to an absolutely perfect day in Churchill.
On my two-day train journey back to Winnipeg I reflected on my time in Churchill. Sure, I was suppose to have two days worth of activities, but due to weather I only had one, and holy hell it was one incredible day. Churchill is a northern Manitoba town full of history, wildlife, and character. The locals are badass and quirky. The food is expensive (supplies are either flown in, or come by train). The scenery is unparalleled.